The German Reformation - 1517 to 1521


Luther's early life and influence (1483-1516)

  • 1483 - Luther was born into a lower-class family; his father was a copper smelter, a relatively new profession, and wanted his son to be a lawyer
  • 1501 - Attended the University of Erfurt, where he studied humanism and law.
  • 1505 - Luther underwent his 'conversion experience'. He was caught in a thunderstorm on his way home and vowed to St. Anne that if he survived he would become a monk. Historians believe that a longer-term dissatisfaction with his life and ongoing religious anxiety was responsible for his conversion.
  • 1505/07 - Luther entered a monastery in Erfurt against his father's wishes and took priestly orders 2 years later
  • 1508 - Luther moved to a monastery at Wittenberg and began to teach theology under the mentoring of Johann von Staupitz
  • 1510 - Luther was chosen as a representative of his monastery to go to Rome, where he experienced the corrupt Catholic church first hand
  • 1513 - Luther became a professor of theology
  • 1516 - Luther first preached against indulgences
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The Ninety-Five Theses (1517)

31 October 1517

  • Luther published the 95 Theses, attacking the abuses of the church, mainly the issue of indulgences, and asked that reform be implemented within the church.
  • Luther particularly objected to Johann Tetzel's campaign of selling indulgences for the restoration of St. Peter's Basilica (Peter's Pence) and for Albert of Mainz to repay his debt to the Fugger family (Albert bought his position - Simony
  • Although he questioned the Pope's authority to issue indulgences, he did not directly challenge the Church, nor did he question the Papacy or Catholicism in general.
  • Regardless of Luther's intentions, the Theses spread quickly due to the unauthorized involvement of the printing press, which provided both cheap copies for the literate and illustrations for the illiterate. 
  • As well as pinning his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church, Luther sent a politely worded letter to his local archbishop, Albert of Mainz, along with a copy of the Theses
  • The 95 Theses questioned Albert's actions and the indulgence campaign. It was because of this that Albert sent the Theses to Rome
  • In turn, the Papacy was forced to respond as the Theses were perceived as an attack on Papal authority. However the Papacy did little to retaliate, and this lack of response drove Luther to spread his ideas more widely.
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Response of Pope Leo X to Luther's early challenge

There were three main aspects to the Pope's response to Luther's early challenge:

  • The Pope's preoccupation with Italian Politics - He was trying to remove enemies among his cardinals after a poisoning attempt; and he was also more concerned about the threat posed by the Turks in the East, who were threatening Christendom.
  • The rivalry between the Augustinian and Dominican monks - The two opposing orders were rivals for power and viewed the Theses as Luther questioning Papal authority. They were the main driving force behind Luther being summoned to Rome.
  • The desire of the church to defend religious practises even if discredited - The Papal response was badly mishandled and Luther likely gained supporters because of this. By supporting some of the aspects of religious practise that had gained the most criticism, and by denying the need for reform, many people were disillusioned from the Catholic church. By refusing to answer Luther's arguments, the church drove him further away and drew more attention to his ideas.

The Pope initially saw the Luther problem as a petty fight between the Augustinian and Dominican monks, and so ordered the Augustinian authorities in Germany to find a solution

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Debate with Cajetan (1518)

  • October 1518 - Luther met Cardinal Cajetan (leader of the Dominicans and Papal legate) at the imperial Diet of Augsburg.
  • Luther was initially summoned to Rome to answer charges, but Frederick the Wise intervened and arranged for the hearing to be in Germany and to be in front of an impartial judge or group of theologians.
  • Pope Leo gave into Frederick's requests, as he needed the Elector's support in the upcoming election and also wanted the German Prince's support in the upcoming crusade against the Turks.
  • Cajetan only wanted to hear Luther's recantation, but Luther wanted to discuss indulgences and persuade Cajetan that he was right
  • Luther and Cajetan met four times, all were unproductive. Cajetan told Luther in the first meeting that he needed to do three things: Repent and revoke his errors; promise not teach again; refrain from future disruption
  • Luther did not promise to do these things but instead insisted on a debate. By the final interview, Cajetan was completely exasperated and cut the interview short, telling him he should not return unless it was to recant.
  • Despite the threat of being judged a heretic, Luther did not recant
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Debate with Eck (1519)

  • June 1519 - The Pope's candidate, Charles V, was elected through the support of Frederick the Wise. However, as he was still new to the position, the Pope still required Frederick's support
  • July 1519 - Luther met Johann von Eck, a Dominican friar, in Leipzig to further debate his ideas
  • Eck attempted to defeat Luther and discredit his ideas
  • It was significant because it was the first time that Luther's ideas were so publically interrogated
  • Eck was a highly skilled debater, and managed to steer the debate away from areas Luther wanted to discuss, and into some highly dangerous areas. these included the authority of the Pope and the degree that Luther agreed with Jan Hus
  • Eck provoked Luther into sounding much more radical that he had before, and forced Luther to admit similarities between his views and those of Jan Hus, a confirmed heretic, and that he did not reject Hus entirely 
  • Luther also admitted that he favoured the sole authority of scripture rather than believing in the authority of the Pope.
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Luther's Tower Experience (1519)

Luther's thinking had changed greatly from his initial objections to indulgences in 1517. It had moved further away from the traditional teaching of the church.

  • 1519 - Luther's tower experience supposedly occurred in 1519, so called as it happened in Luther's study in the tower of the monastery where he lived
  • This breakthrough came when Luther had been meditating on the implications of a Bible verse, and began to consider the implications of his ideas; and from this Luther developed his idea of 'justification by faith alone' 
  • Sola fide - Luther had begun to believe that the only authority he would accept for a religious practise or belief was the Bible
  • As a result, he rejected the idea that the Pope was God's appointed representative on Earth. This was because that claim was not in the Bible.
  • Following on from that, Luther rejected the whole structure of the church's hierarchy 
  • Justification by faith means that a person can only be saved by faith in God. This was revolutionary because it rejected the importance of goods works and practises like indulgences in preventing people from going to hell. 
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Luther's Pamphlets and Excommunication (1520)

  • August 1520 - In his pamphlet, 'Address to the Christian Nobility', Luther confirmed that there was no difference between secular and religious authority, except the work they did. Luther's belief in the 'Priesthood of all believers' was expressed in this pamphlet, which denied that there was anything special about the officials of the Catholic church.
  • Luther also argued that the Pope was not God's chosen representative on Earth, but was an imposter who had been put there by the devil
  • He also called for the secular princes, in particular Charles V, to reform abuses within the church.
  • The initial print was very popular, and the 4,000 copies sold out in 5 days.
  • October 1520 - 'On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church' was Luther's second pamphlet, and developed the same themes but for different audiences, as this time Luther was writing to the clergy. Luther also redefined the sacraments and the mass in this pamphlet.
  • November 1520 - This pamphlet, 'Liberty of the Christian Man', spoke of Luther's views on free will and expressed his first opinions of sola fidura
  • December 1520 - The papal bull Exsurge Domine was published, giving Luther 60 days to recant or he would be excommunicated. Bonfires were made of Luther's writings around Germany. Luther burned it publicly in Wittenberg, along with volumes of canon law
  • January 1521 - Luther is officially excommunicated from the Catholic Church
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The Diet of Worms (1521)

  • Luther had been condemned by the Pope and excommunicated from the Catholic church
  • He had challenged the authority of the Pope, some important Catholic doctrines and had advocated new and radical ideas
  • Yet he still had the opportunity to appeal to the Holy Roman Emperor to avoid the severe consequences of his excommunication.
  • April 1521 - The meeting of the imperial diet where Luther was to be tried and held was at Worms. He only agreed to attend once he had been given the promise of safe passage and return
  • His journey was accompanied by supporters in the form of cheering crowds and when he preached at towns along the route he attracted large audiences
  • Luther faced the Holy Roman Emperor, the princes, the Papal envoys and any Lords who were present.
  • He hoped for a hearing and a chance to explain his ideas, but once again it became clear that what was sought was a recantation without a debate
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Results of the Diet of Worms (1521)

  • Luther was examined by the Chancellor of Trier, and was shown a pile of books and asked firstly whether they were his work. Secondly, he was asked if he wanted to defend any or all of them.
  • He confirmed that yes, he had written the works and asked for more time on the second question.
  • The next day he returned with his answers; he answered yes to the first question, and stated that for some of his books where he attacked people personally, he could have been more moderate
  • When pressed further by the Chancellor of Trier, Luther stated that he would not recant his arguments on the Papacy, unless he were proved by scripture or plain reason that he was in the wrong. He was condemned an outlaw.
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